If someone asked you to design a Hotshot in a lab, Jesse Steed is who you would come up with. Six-foot-four, 220 pounds, he'd spent four years as a Marine Corps gunner before becoming a Hotshot in the spring of 2001. He often said Hotshotting was the next-best thing to the military: the hard work, the camaraderie, the action. And like he did in the Marines, he got to run point.
Jesse was the captain of Granite Mountain, Eric's number two, and to the rest of the crew, he seemed invincible – superhuman, even. One time, at a fire in Yosemite, he'd rappelled down from a helicopter into the backcountry to extinguish some spot fires, when he discovered that the red dots on the thermal imaging weren't fires but black bears. Jesse chased them off with his chain saw. Another time, he was fighting a fire when a tree started to fall his way. Instead of running, Jesse dropped his shoulder into the trunk and shoved the tree back with one hand.
The other guys all worshipped Jesse. Andrew called him a Greek god; Wade said he was his hero. They would have walked through fire for him, even if walking through fire wasn't something they did for fun. Jesse was constantly wrapping everyone in bear hugs and telling his teammates he loved them. He was the kind of guy you just wanted to make proud. When he joined the crew during their second year as Hotshots, having transferred over from another crew, Eric called him "the missing piece to our puzzle."
Around 7 p.m. Saturday, Jesse pulled his Dodge pickup into his driveway in Prescott Valley. He and his wife, Desiree, had two kids: a son, Caden, 4, and a daughter, Cambria, 3. His mother-in-law was visiting, and the three of them sat on the back porch, on their brand-new patio set, watching the kids play on the swings. Caden had just learned to swing by himself, and Jesse cheered him from the patio proudly, sipping a Coors Light as the sun set.
A little after 8, Jesse's phone rang. It was Eric: He said they'd been called to a fire near Yarnell. They needed to be at the station by 5 the next morning.
Desiree didn't worry much about Jesse when he was on a fire. He'd been doing it so long without even a close call – why start now? Sometimes they talked about how fires had gotten worse in the past decade or about how more development in fire-prone areas had made the job more dangerous. Secretly Desiree kind of liked it when a fire would break out near town. It was easy to forget about the Hotshots when they were off somewhere in the middle of the woods. Having them close reminded everyone of the job they did.
Jesse got off the phone with Eric and called his squad bosses, who contacted the rest of the crew. By now it was getting dark, so he and Desiree took the kids inside. Jesse had to wake up at 4 am, so they put the kids to bed and kissed them goodnight and tried to get some sleep.
About an hour later, Darrell Willis also got a phone call. Willis was Prescott Fire's Wildland Chief – Eric's immediate boss, mentor, and close friend. On the phone was one of Willis' colleagues, who was serving as the incident commander down in Yarnell Hill. "Hey Darrell," he said. "Would you please come down here? I really need some help."
Normally, when the sun goes down and the temperature drops, a wildfire tends to cool off a bit – they call it "laying down." But the Yarnell fire wasn't laying down; in fact, it was getting bigger. By the time Chief Willis got there, around midnight, it had grown to more than 100 acres. And it was only about a mile and a half from town.
Chief Willis spent a few hours working up a structure-protection plan. The fire was moving north, toward a neighborhood called Peeples Valley; he didn't think it would reach town overnight, but Sunday morning was another story. At 3 am, he talked to the incident commander and said they needed to order a lot more resources: engines, aircraft, a number of crews. "We need to hit it as hard as we can," he thought. "Tomorrow, we're going to be in a battle."